As with other predominantly white suburbs across the country, Keller has always leaned conservative, but fall 2021 saw a sharp uptick in right-wing hysteria at the local school board meetings.
“That was when Matt Krause’s book list dropped,” said Laney Hawes, referring to the state rep’s letter to a state agency requesting data on so-called “woke” tomes in public school libraries.
Republicans then and now pander to conspiracy theories alleging public schools labor to indoctrinate children into leftist ideology and sexual deviance. As Hawes recently described the far-right takeover of the Keller school board, three other area parents seated next to her at Hawes’ home — Melissa Muenzler, Marti Shavor, and Mary Anne Weatherred — periodically chimed in to voice their concerns about the politicization of the school district.
While Southlake’s Carroll school district regularly makes national news due to the wealthy suburb’s racist, homophobic school board, nearby Keller has largely dodged media scrutiny even as school leaders there are arguably if not demonstrably even more aligned with Fox Nation lies about the pandemic, minority youths, and library books. Over the past two years, Keller’s seven school board members have banned around one hundred titles, gone against most parents’ wishes by arming elementary school teachers (middle and high schools already have peace officers), targeted trans youths through unneeded bathroom guidelines, and effectively disallowed non-Christians from delivering prayers before board meetings.
District leadership’s policies are out-of-step with what decent-minded Keller parents want, Hawes said, but low voter turnout and general parental apathy permit the Christian Nationalist takeover of the district to persist. Keller ISD did not respond to a request for comment.
Hawes said her goal is to make school board meetings boring again. The moms have networked with parents across northeast Tarrant County, sharing information and brainstorming ways to expose a well-monied movement that has flipped Southlake, Keller, and Grapevine in favor of religiously zealous board members who wish to entangle church and state at the cost of any child who is not white, wealthy, and straight. And Christian.
Muenzler said Keller’s antics are the last gasp of a generation of white, privileged, reactionary parents coming to terms with children who may identify as non-straight or reject conservative worldviews.
“Their kids are growing up with different ideas,” she added. “Some of their kids acknowledge white privilege, and the parents are panicking. It can’t be the parents’ fault, so whose fault is it? The schools. It’s a culture war, but the war is already over. Kids have gay friends. It’s normal to them. It’s the older parents who are panicking.”
The Big Takeover
Flipping a school board of Republicans to extremists required a coordinated misinformation effort, the mothers said. Hawes shared a screenshot of a text she received earlier this year from “Keller ISD Progressives,” a nonexistent group, about former Place 5 board member Bev Dixon.
“Hey Keller ISD!” the unsolicited missive read. “Vote for Bev Dixon. [She] will fight for our values and stand up for equity.”
The message falsely painted Dixon as a liberal.
The mothers shared another text about Dixon, this one from a different but also nonexistent group that criticized the board candidate for donating to indicted former president Donald Trump. Due to the concurrent timing of both messages and their shared political aim, they must have come from the same unidentified group playing both sides of the aisle — and winning. Dixon was ousted by MAGA supporter Chris Coker.
In May 2022, current Keller board members Joni Shaw Smith, Sandi Walker, and Micah Young were launched into office by Patriot Mobile. The self-described “Christian conservative” wireless provider that’s essentially a shell company for dark money had become notorious for spreading misinformation and taking over school boards across North Texas.
“Voters are waking up to the left’s political indoctrination in our nation’s public schools and are working hard to take back school boards across America,” says Patriot Mobile executive director Leigh Wambsganns on one of many mailers.
Other mailers paid for by Patriot Mobile reference debunked conspiracy theories that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is taught in public schools while emphasizing that Smith, Walker, Young, and other right-wingers are staunchly pro-life even as abortion remains outside the purview of school leadership. Confirming the board’s affiliation with the Christian Nationalist movement which seeks to install religious fanatics into office has been easy, given the board members’ openness about their misbeliefs on social media.
“Separation of church and state doesn’t exist, and it was never intended to,” board member Coker recently wrote on Facebook, apparently unaware of the Establishment Clause that has been repeatedly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. “I’ll be happy to debate once anyone here can cite where in the Constitution it mentions separation of church and state. Go ahead. I’ll wait.”
Muenzler said Keller’s school board has historically leaned conservative, but past school leaders who were booted with Patriot Mobile money put children over politics.
“The old board was there to pass policies to teach our children,” she said. “It’s horrible seeing schools being hijacked by a political agenda. Keller is trying badly to fit in with Southlake. They revel in cruelty while saying they are Christian.”
So Tedious Is this Day
When Krause’s list made national news, Hawes said board meetings began focusing on library books. In early 2022, a handful of conservative parents filed complaints on 41 books, including several requests for investigations into titles not in Keller school district libraries. The list of banned books, ironically, included all versions of the Bible. Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation and the award-winning This One Summer were also pulled.
In August 2022, after a majority of the board was replaced by MAGA believers, the board voted to revise policy guiding how library books are bought, accessed, and banned.
“This policy provides criteria for the selection, removal, and replacement of library materials, focused on maximizing transparency with parents and community members,” the newly added language said. “The legal responsibility for the purchase of all library materials is vested in the Board.”
The revised guidelines created a framework for parents to challenge library books based on the material’s “appropriateness.” Once a complaint is received, the school with the allegedly inappropriate reading material is required to contact the complainant to resolve the matter. Any book placed in the challenge process must be removed from shelves, according to policy, and placed in a parental consent area in the school’s library until the complaint process is completed. Hawes said the parental consent area, while sounding like a special area in the library, is nonexistent, meaning the books are effectively hidden from children based on often groundless allegations.
After initially working with committees of parents and school staff who overturned all of the initial complaints, Keller’s school board adopted a rubric in mid-2022 that effectively streamlined the book-banning process. Based on the district’s new and current rubric, descriptions of gender or gender fluidity, depictions of nonsexual nudity, and representations of extended kissing are grounds for yanking a book.
Apparently unhappy with the pace of book-banning, the board removed the 41 titles that had initially been pulled but returned.
“These books went through the official district-established challenge committee process,” Hawes tweeted shortly after hearing the news, “but because they all passed the committee process, our extremist Christian Nationalist school board decided the process was ‘rigged.’ Sound familiar?”
Weatherred said conservative parents openly complained that the committee was stacked with school employees like librarians.
That summer, Keller board member Sandi Walker, who was heavily backed by Patriot Mobile, wrote a piece for the Dallas Express in which she characterized Hawes and other parents critical of book banning as members of “the woke mob,” another right-wing boogeyman.
“Radical activists are working to continually assault our youngest generation,” Walker writes in the discredited blog owned by Republican mega-donor Monte Bennett. “We are setting boundaries, not banning. We are prioritizing innocence over agendas. We are protecting the academic sanctity of the learning environment. Kids are off limits when it comes to adults wanting to push their political ideology. The woke mob can attack me, a mother of six, a substitute teacher, and a youth mentor who is elected to serve our amazing community, but they need to keep our educators out of their crosshairs.”
Muenzler and the other Keller moms chuckled at Walker’s name-calling.
“They call us ‘the woke antifa left,’ ” she said. “We are suburban moms.”
Hawes provided a 3-month-old email from the Keller school district informing librarians to pull Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from bookshelves because a parent had filed a complaint about the cornerstone of Western literature. The ban lasted only a few hours because state guidelines require high school freshmen to read the work.
“I tweeted the email,” Hawes said, referring to the post that has 417,000 views. “The rubric says you can’t glorify suicide,” but the guidelines do not allow for context.
Speaking at her home, Hawes paused to ask one of her two daughters to bring a title recently yanked from school.
“My second grader loves this book,” she said before reading several lines from Woke, a collection of social justice-minded poems by several authors. “ ‘Imagine a rainbow without seven colors. Imagine someone points to this rainbow and says there are only two colors. What would you say? How can you say that? Look at how many colors there are. The truth is there are so many shades between boy and girl. We don’t have to choose. We can just be. If somebody pointed at one point of the rainbow and said this color is better than all the others, what would you say? Sometimes the world wants one color of the rainbow to be louder than the rest. Look into the sky. Look how perfect it is as a whole.’ ”
Shooting for the Stars
Late last year, Keller board members asked parents what they thought of arming teachers to protect children in a mass shooting on campus. An overwhelming percentage of parents (93% of 908 votes) said they did not want the district to arm teachers or school staff. The fifth of six questions asked parents which type of armed protection they preferred, meaning no guns on campus was not an option in that portion of the poll.
Hawes believes the date of the survey is proof that the board members expected low feedback.
“It was the Friday afternoon after school was out for Thanksgiving week,” she said. “Who is looking for that email? Nobody. We were excited they at least had a survey, so we could show them they don’t listen to parents” when the board pushed forward with arming teachers not long afterward.
Around 9% of the Keller school district’s roughly 35,000 parents replied, which prompted a handful of board members to question the validity of the poll even as school board races are determined by a similar 10% of eligible voters.
“That’s not a lot of people who took that survey,” said board member Joni Smith during a school board meeting late last year.
The board voted 4-3 to move forward with the Guardian Program, which requires 16 hours of firearm training by participants. Several months after the vote, state leaders passed HB 3, which is now law and requires all public schools to arm an officer, security guard, or district staff member on every campus. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun reform advocacy nonprofit, recently performed an analysis of mishandled guns at schools and over the past five years found 100 publicly reported instances of teachers and school staff unintentionally discharging their firearms or allowing students to access the guns. The list includes a Granbury superintendent forced to resign earlier this year when a third grader found the school leader’s handgun unattended in a restroom.
Muenzler, whose father and grandfather are retired peace officers, asked school officials pointed questions via email but says she was ignored.
“I have procedural questions about how [school leaders] will mitigate this” active shooter threat, she said. “Will the teacher leave the first graders to pursue the shooter? [The board] refused to answer. You have to carry the gun on your person. My kids were in elementary school. There are kids crawling on you, and you have a gun holstered?”
Guidelines from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) do not require school boards to disclose which teacher or school staff member is armed.
“The school board ran on transparency,” Muenzler said, “but we aren’t allowed to know if there was a loaded gun in our child’s classroom.”
Weatherred compared right-wing support for guns in schools to the face mask debate during the pandemic.
“Parents said they shouldn’t have to wear a mask because we were afraid of COVID?” she said. “Suddenly, we are all supposed to be OK if there is a gun in the classroom? I don’t have a gun in my house. Why would I send my child to school to be around a loaded weapon? I made a conscious decision to not have [guns] in my home.”
In a 2021 article examining 133 school shootings and attempts from 1980 to 2019, JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) found that armed school officials were not effective in preventing gun violence.
“Whenever firearms are present, there is room for error, and even highly trained officers get split-second decisions wrong,” the report reads. “Prior research suggests that many school shooters are actively suicidal, intending to die in the act, so an armed officer may be an incentive rather than a deterrent. Schools must invest in resources to prevent shootings before they occur.”
In June, Keller’s right-wing school leaders attacked transgender youths by adopting two policies, including one under the “Facility Standards” section that addresses a nonexistent problem, the mothers said.
The policy reads, “To the extent permitted by law, schools will maintain separate restrooms, locker rooms, and other similar facilities designated for and used only by persons based on the person’s biological sex.”
Individuals, the policy continues, are “required to use the facility that corresponds to their gender assigned at birth.”
Hawes said school leaders did not consider HIPAA restrictions that ban teachers and other non-medical professionals from accessing medical records like birth certificates. The Keller mother who stays in close contact with local teachers said she has yet to hear of a trans student causing so much as a complaint by using the restroom. It is common knowledge, Weatherred said, that trans youth use either the teachers’ or nurses’ restrooms, where the minors can have privacy and avoid harassment.
Another new policy, this one under “Identification of Students,” states that no teacher is required to use a student’s preferred pronoun even as the First Amendment protects everyone in this country from being forced to speak, write, or show something against their freewill.
The policy says, “District staff, educators, and other district employees shall not promote, encourage, or require the use of pronouns that are inconsistent with a student’s or other person’s biological sex as it appears on the individual’s birth certificate or other government-issued record.”
Hawes worries that the policy will embolden cisgender students to bully trans youths.
“If a [cis] student decides to bully them by using the wrong pronoun, is the teacher not allowed to stop that bullying?” Hawes said. “No teacher asked for this policy. We already have protections for free speech. It’s a giant middle finger to non-cisgender kids.”
During a recent school board meeting, one Keller parent put it simply: We used to worry about our kids being bullied by their peers, the mother said. Now, it’s the grownups who are the bullies.
The passage of anti-trans school policies reflects state efforts to marginalize and harass trans youths and queer students. Axios says Texas led the nation in anti-LGBTQ bills during the recent legislative session with 57 of them targeting drag shows and gender-affirming health care. The LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Texas says that homophobia drives every anti-trans rule and law.
“When transgender adolescents face loss of the care that affirms who they are, it can have devastating consequences,” Equality Texas writes. Anti-trans bills and policies “isolate transgender youth and remove their opportunities to live fulfilled, healthy lives and are dangerous and cruel. These lawmakers are placing their own political goals above evidence-based medicine, above private family decisions, and above care that is proven to save young lives.”
Only One Faith
December’s board meeting began with youthful jubilation as around a dozen grade school students danced and sang along to songs from Frozen. As the youngsters sat on the floor up front, Mark Aaron Griffin, who was introduced by the board as “Rabbi Griffin,” delivered the opening prayer in Hebrew.
Hawes said she was elated. For the past year and a half, the right-wing board had allowed only Christian prayers before meetings. With the announcement that a rabbi would deliver the opening prayer, Hawes thought the board was finally waking up.
“A high school senior who went to a [nearby] synagogue looks at me and says, ‘I’ve never seen this man before,’ ” Hawes recalled.
During the meeting, Hawes found an article on her phone describing the Saginaw-based rabbi as recently indicted on four counts of sexual assault. Griffin’s congregation, Sar Shalom Synagogue, adheres to Yeshua-centered Judaism, also known as Messianic Judaism, meaning the congregants are Jews who embrace Jesus as the true messiah and thus bridge — though mainstream Judaism would say untenably — both faiths.
“I walked up to the board after the meeting and said, ‘Do you know this is the man you had pray?’ ” Hawes remembered. “You could tell they didn’t know.”
Hawes feels the incident illustrates how out of touch the board is when making decisions that affect the school. The four mothers said they have all tried to determine the policy used to select prayer leaders, but no one from the district has ever responded. So-called legislative prayers, such as invocations before the start of government meetings, are allowed to exclude non-Christians under certain circumstances.
“It’s a big middle finger to anyone who is not Christian,” Shavor said.
Weatherred believes the intentional exclusion of non-Christians is an intentional ploy by the Christian Nationalist board.
Make School Board Meetings Boring Again
Hawes, Shavor, and around 20 other Keller parents are now focused on supporting the work that Keller’s teachers and librarians perform every day. Through the newly formed nonprofit Keller ISD Families for Public Education (@KellerISDFamiliesforPublicED), the parent-driven group works to improve transparency in school board dealings and elections while recommending and supporting board candidates who commit to placing sound policies over culture wars.
“We truly want to enter the community and build up education and how important voting and access to books are,” Hawes said. “People are turned off by heightened political rhetoric. What we have found is that people want to feel like they are inspired. It will only take 1,000 votes to win back Keller’s school board because there is such a small number of people voting. We are building relationships with the community.”
When the parents aren’t organizing community events to support public schools, they scour meeting agendas for divisive and unneeded policy proposals. The parents say their biggest obstacle, beyond the well-monied Christian Nationalist movement, is voter apathy. Many parents rightfully assume that moving to the tony suburb means the schools are well-funded and that children are receiving a great public education.
“Most of the community is out of touch with what is going on,” Hawes said.
To stay sane, the mothers send one another funny memes or use satire to underline the absurdity of the district’s policies. Keller’s strict adherence to age-appropriateness when allowing books in libraries now means that young children cannot access the entire Harry Potter series because the later novels are rated for middle school and higher. To drive home the incongruity of the library policy, Hawes complained about her son’s “exposure” to advanced math during a board meeting.
“I have a son in fourth grade who is a math whiz,” Hawes told the school board. “He is doing sixth-grade math. I went to the school board meeting and said, ‘Hey, my fourth grader has access to sixth-grade math right now, and I don’t think it’s appropriate. I’m very concerned that he is being exposed to materials that aren’t age appropriate. I am worried that it could affect him.’ ”
The group of moms chuckled at the story, but the board members failed to find the humor in the message, Hawes said.
“Before Patriot Mobile, Monte Bennett, and others became involved, school board races would cost about $5,000,” she added. “Now, they’re up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.”